Monday, May 16, 2005

Of Buddhism and Gods, Part 2 - Reincarnation

One of the most fundamental aspects of Buddhism is the concept of karmic rebirth. Some Buddhists argue that this process does not necessarily apply to the physical realm per se, rather it has to do with the rebirth of consciousness where continuous changes in the individual mind-state take place. However, the more predominant view on rebirth involves a continuous cycle of bodily deaths that a permanent "self" experiences.

In the latter, a permanent "self" transmigrates from one life to another in a cycle of birth and rebirth. Often this transmigration involves changes in the physical form of the "self" depending on the type of karma. Good karma leads to high rebirth as a deva or human, while bad karma leads to low rebirth as a hell-sufferer or an animal. The ultimate form of karma is a liberating one in which a "self" breaks free from the relentless cycle of rebirth to finally reach the permanent state of nirvana where the "self" ceases to exist in this material world.

While this school of thought clearly establishes what constitutes the end of "self", there is no clear explanation as to what constitutes the beginning. If we assume that the number of "selves" in this world is fixed and each "self" can only occupy one body, then it follows that since the beginning of time, the number of "selves" can only decrease, as more and more "selves" reach nirvana. However, the most recent number of the human population suggests otherwise as it keeps growing exponentially. At the same time, more and more animal species are becoming endangered and subsequently extinct, mostly in the name of progress brought about by homo sapiens. Therefore, it can be conjectured that the rate at which the number of animals is decreasing and the rate at which the number of humans is increasing do in fact cancel each other out at the very least, taking into account the number of "selves" that have succesfully reached nirvana.

While this theory looks promising, it fails to take into consideration an intermediate life form. Recent developments suggest the emergence of a third form that is part human and part animal. While there have been numerous attempts at christening this new life form, experts are still largely divided over the name. Biologists insist on calling them "chimeras", sociologists prefer the name "sociopaths", while psychologists refer to them as "psycopaths".

Regardless of the term used to describe these beings, scholars do reach a consensus on one occasion; that this hybrid life form consists of those so-called "humans" who molest their own children, leaders who cheat their own citizens, businessmen who cheat their own customers, world leaders who wage unjustified wars against so-called evil nations, and worst of all, drivers who like to jump queues in traffic. Why this intermediate life form was not discovered previously remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, these hybrid beings are here to last.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Of Buddhism and Gods, Part 1


Many a first-time blogger feels compelled to write a welcome message in his first post. I however, will try my best not to succumb to cliches and get straight down to business.

After work today, my colleagues and I decided to have dinner at a Muslim Chinese restaurant near our workplace. Some would say that it was a perfect venue for a theological discourse. Perhaps they were right, for as soon as after our orders were taken, we were already in full swing discussing Buddhism.

Contrary to what many Malays believe, Buddhism does not advocate the existence of a supernatural and supreme being, i.e. God. That struck me as mightily strange, since the majority of Malaysian Chinese subscribe to both Buddhism and Taoism, with the followers of the latter worshipping the most number of gods in comparison to followers of other polytheistic religions. Not only that, but the number of gods that Taoists worship keeps increasing every day.

Therefore I would say that the confusion was justified, for how could two religions that have very different views on God be compatible with each other? Despite the notion that Buddhist and Taoist philosophies heavily influence each other, the fact remains that they are two very different religions, for I view the belief in God as the most basic tenet that serves as the foundation of any religion.

Putting me out of my misery, one of my colleagues finally explained that being a very flexible and extensible belief system, Taoism has no problem assimilating its values and beliefs with those of Buddhism, but not the other way around. In other words, the relationship is unidirectional. Therefore if one is originally a Taoist, he will have no problem being a Buddhist as well. But for a Buddhist to subscribe to Taoism is outrageous, or a road least travelled at best. This however, begs another important chicken-and-egg question; are Malaysian Chinese Taoists first and Buddhists second, or is it the other way around?